Double vision blog: The tides are turning
The English coastline is probably viewed by foreigners and British natives in rather differing ways currently; it is doubtful that turquoise blue sea, hot white beaches with swaying palm trees spring to mind in either of them though. The news reports thousands of people fleeing from war torn countries, seeking safety and a better life in the UK.
Desperate to get here by whatever means they can. Meanwhile hopeful British holiday makers are equally desperately trying to get to France and finding the journey delayed by dockers strikes, police patrols and motorways resembling colourful, fat snakes of vehicles filled with bored and bickering passengers trying cross the English Channel.
My advice from UK terra firma is not to venture further from the shore than one can swim on a hot day and explore the varied delights of our coastline on cooler (more typical) summer days.
The furthest point from the sea in the UK is a mere 113 K; My valley ledge in the South West is only 30 minutes from the ancient port of Watchet at the mouth of the Washford River on the Bristol Channel. Its Royal Saxon mint was raided by the Vikings in the 10th Century.
A primitive pier developed where salt and wine were imported from France in the 16th Century and after a damaging storm a harbour was built in the early 18th Century to export many things including kelp seaweed for use in glass making. It was burnt and the soda and potash were used. There were pirates on Lundy Island and smuggling was rife.
Romantically in 1797 the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge walked to Watchet with his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth from the Quantock Hills and was inspired to write the epic poem The Ancient Mariner. A verse reads:
The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop,
Below the kirk, below the hill
Below the lighthouse top.
By 1862 Watchet was so important that it was connected to two railways, the West Somerset and the Mineral Line. It had a huge paper mill and served a thriving iron mining business in the Brendon Hills. At it’s height it exported 40,000 tons of ore annually.
It was bustling with the sidelines and houses of ill repute that accompany thirsty dockers and sailors coming ashore. It had gambling dens, brothels, pubs and chapels exhorting men in vain to “take the pledge” of abstinence.
By the 1970’s the docks were in terminal decline; the railways were closed, the mining finished and the paper mill turned to making core-board. The crescendo of industry machinations and ship fog horns fell silent. Local employment was lean and people struggled.
In 2001 a new marina was opened for boats and yachts and slowly Watchet’s spirit is returning but in a different guise. The steam train runs again, renovated quaysides and charming narrow streets open to the Esplanade with bars, live music and art exhibitions housed in old shipping containers. There are two museums, one is housed in the Old Market House that included the town jail with a chapel upstairs.
On a wet, windy Friday evening recently, a friend and I visited local artist Jennі Dutton’s retrospective work including some beautiful women’s torsos made from hundreds of pieces of broken ceramics used to create a mosaic skin, some sinister looking dolls and an early self portrait from the 1970’s in a floppy hat and cheesecloth.
Next door’s art container had a rather matted looking horse’s head whinnying amongst some potted herbs and flowers outside. It was well attended by a cheery bunch and quite a few bottles of wine were drunk.
With a backdrop of grey clouds and churning pewter coloured sea, the mud in the harbour was thick and brown around the hulls of boats at low tide. A seagull on the pier looked at us with a bossy and quizzical eye as we wandered down the road to Pebbles bar that has about 10 locally made ciders and beers to choose from. We sat to down to sink a pint accompanied by paper wrapped fish and chips listening to a laid back local jazz band.
Two days later I drove west through Devon on a dazzlingly bright and blue sky morning to a fishing village called Clovelly set at the bottom of steep wooded cliffs reached by a winding cobbled street that is closed to traffic bar donkeys and sledges. There was a seaweed festival being held in stalls along the top of the stone harbour walls that look out over the wider reaches of the Bristol Channel.
Clovelly’s weather that day and it’s history couldn’t differ more from Watchet’s. Included in the Domesday Book and owned by King William, it has passed through only three families and is still privately owned. In the 14th Century Sir William Cary, built the stone harbour quay using interlocking boulders without mortar and in the 16th Century George Cary completed it with diver’s cellars and warehouses. It sheltered up to 60 herring fishing boats.
Inspired by the sea the Victorian historian and novelist Charles Kingsley spent his childhood at Clovelly and wrote the Elizabethan story about George’s son William “Will Cary of Clovelly” in Westward Ho! His imagination stretched to write The Water Babies - a children’s classic with beautiful illustrations and a moral fable including a response to the theory of evolution and a satire on Victorian attitudes to child labour - just in case the grown ups weren’t taking him seriously!
It is odd how times change and environments evolve; in the moment of standing in a place and looking at the relics of time; from ancient to present, reinventing the costumes and hearing the voices; are they held in the air or the fabric of the buildings and the stones in the ground? Maybe they are echoes thrown up from the watery depths.
In Watchet, the din of shouting men, huge ships, clanging metal and cranes, steam engines and coal smoke. Singing and carousing, street fights and alcohol.
In Clovelly, Nobles and royalty, maids and butlers serving the gentry. Fish wives gossiping and vicious beaked seagulls screeching over herring catches landed from boats. Salty sails and ropes, rolling barrels of tar and salt bumping and rumbling over cobble stones. Our use of the seaside these days is mostly for pleasure. Walking, bathing, shopping and surfing.
The bustle and commerce that brought money and prosperity also brought pollution and hard living. Do we really mourn the loss of industry and lament the scarcity of jobs as we loll about licking our ice creams, paddling in water that’s cleaner than it has been for decades? Someone has to service the holiday accommodation so the money still comes but is it a ‘real’ life or just a jumble of history and memories that we try to preserve whilst being connected to the Internet and run businesses that communicate through the ether? Frustrated when the signal is weak.
I learned a lot about collecting and eating seaweed and how nutritious and delicious it is.There were several companies from the region making food and cosmetics with it and they are setting a trend in sustainable businesses from local resources.
One thing is certain; the tide still comes in twice a day and goes out again and the waves still sound the same. I will always love to be beside the seaside.
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